I resisted for quite a while, as I usually do with things lots of my friends like, out of fear that I would be disappointed and fail to connect. But all of you were right. It was only a matter of time. I’ve fallen (in the sense of intellectual prostration, although I will confess there were times during the first listen that I literally laid down on the floor) to the Hamilton soundtrack.
Like the overwhelming majority of fans, I haven’t seen the musical actually performed–tickets for that are now booked presumably into the next decade. I’ll make my analysis as if it were a concept album.
A 46-song concept album about Alexander Hamilton.
Which sounds exhausting, but out of all the albums I’ve been introduced to this year, none have been quite so energizing, invigorating, really, as this soundtrack. I understand what people are talking about when they say Hamilton re-awakened their ability to feel patriotic. It’s a potent cocktail of subtle narrative magic tricks, melodies that will stick in your head and then later on stick to your ribs, and lyrics that seem built of words made to stand together, as inevitably combined as a “we hold these truths to be self-evident.” Before it concerns itself with doing the unexpected, indulging in its own complexity, or painting in the spaces the words leave off (there are few of those, in this case), the music itself–that is, the sung melodies and the instrumental parts that back them–aims to tell the story.
And for this C+ American history student at least, it unequivocally succeeds. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the bogglingly multi-talented mind behind Hamilton, has produced in addition to a standout libretto a collection of musical arrangements that put you, emotionally and psychologically, in the moment. When I listen to them I feel close to a time when democracy was a radical, deliriously exciting idea, rollicking forward in all its compromise and imperfection from the feet of a population starving for justice. I feel a sense of intense possibility, an electric charge around me, a quasi-physical knowledge that upheaval is not only possible but probable.
And just a few tracks later, I can feel what makes someone look at all that and decide to hold back.
The musical’s central conflict, appropriately enough I suppose, is between Alexander Hamilton–who you may know from the ten dollar bill–and Aaron Burr–who you may know as the guy that shot Alexander Hamilton. The narrative is aware of this contrast in legacies, and in fact shifts it into sharp focus as the two characters move in opposing directions, only to come to an intersection in the end. The music signals this movement in subtle yet deeply resonant ways, challenging the audience at the level of the barely-conscious to place themselves, to the point of total immersion, in each man’s mindset.
Songs centered on Hamilton, prior to a certain point, are fiercely directional. From “My Shot,” which sets up most of his musical and lyrical leitmotivs for the rest of the soundtrack, until climactic scenes much later, his declarations are backed up by relentlessly upward-climbing riffs, powerful bass lines, and beats that pulse like a fever. The melodies move as dramatically as the ambitious Fedaralist’s fortunes; every crescendo feels like an epiphany, every sudden silence feels like the floor dropping out. My favorite Hamilton-focused track, “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)”—in which he commands a battalion for the first time in the final battle of the war for American independence—is as urgent and forward-pressing as the bayonet charges it describes (feel those string riffs like a whole bank of elevators, perfectly ordered around your spine!) until a sudden fall to silence, like smoke clearing, around the 2:30 mark. We are there in the nervous system of a revolution, feeling every impulse that comes through tingle in our fingers.
But you feel for Burr too–when he’s telling his side of things, the music is steady, contemplative, subdued but not without complexity of expression. The piano part in “Wait For It” rocks back and forth, ruminating and repeating, suggesting the turning over and over of something. Leslie Odom Jr.’s voice pulls past every note like a silk ribbon in a maze, lending a lulling drag, a hesitant beauty, to his character’s expressions. Every moment of the song–in which he describes the unstoppability of life, the inevitability of death, and the value of his parents’ legacy as justification for his policy of biding his time–is tenuous and reflective, considering a single point in depth rather than ranging wide over the musical and philosophical landscape.
One of Burr’s most dynamic songs (although it’s still a very different flavor than Hamilton’s dynamism) is “The Room Where It Happens,” which also happens to be a pivotal moment for him both as a character unto himself and as a player in Hamilton’s biography. It’s quiet but full of flourish; Burr’s hesitating back-and-forth piano riffs begin to skitter frantically in place, and then, as the song progresses, move out of place and back in with breakneck speed, as if putting an experimental toe over the line and then pulling it close. In the scene surrounded by this music, Hamilton concedes to adopt Burr’s philosophy of compromise (“talk less, smile more”) in order to get his plan for the Federal banking system through to congress. After a secret meeting with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, “the immigrant emerges with unprecedented financial power, a system he can shape however he wants.” It’s at around this point in his rundown of events that Burr’s backing track begins a subtler, cooler version of Hamilton’s repeating upward-climbing riffs. As the song progresses and he realizes the influence his formerly “young, scrappy and hungry” friend/rival has just begun to wield, Burr accuses and is accused, receives a demand to cop to his ambitions, breaks under the pressure. Everything goes incredibly quiet. It’s just Leslie Odom Jr. and a few sparse string plucks again as he admits that what he really wants is “to be in the room where it happens.”
His earlier assertions in “Wait For It,” that everything save for himself is out of his control, feel very far away in this moment. He doesn’t want to give up control anymore. He’s tired of waiting. The lyrics don’t tell us that, in explicit terms. The music is what gives it away–it grows faster, wilder; its pauses and chord changes become more drastic; it rises to an impassioned pitch with the character’s grittiest vocals yet ringing out in sharp contrast to his earlier tones–and it ends with a gunshot, foreshadowing the duel that will change Burr’s life and bring Hamilton’s to an end.
While they have Miranda’s brilliant lyrics with which to explain themselves, it is the whole pieces that really tell Hamilton and Burr’s stories, and that serves as a grand reminder that Hamilton’s messages about legacy loom large and technicolor in the arts. We are connecting with these people who have been dead for over two hundred and fifty years, or with their memories, or with the ghosts and golems their words and accomplishments summoned; and furthermore we are connecting on a level deeper than thought.
The conflict between the Aaron Burr “wait for it” philosophy–which forfeits agency in favor of security–and the Alexander Hamilton “not throwing away my shot” approach–which risks personal disaster for the sake of the big dream, principle, ambition, and posterity–is immediate thanks to this factor. You feel the urgency of Hamilton’s brilliance and the hard landing of his fall from grace. At the same time you feel every big and little reason why, in the end, he does throw that shot away, fatally, to the sky. The promises broken, the enemies made, the blows leveled in that bid for the history books. It’s the fundamental tension of the phenomenon we arbitrarily call genius.
Hamilton is about many things, specific and universal–but I believe that in large part it is about that: the meteor flash of an eloquent, passionate life and body of work, as it unfolds in this imperfect meritocracy born of rebellion. A mind forging sound and language into something that will last, and hold, and inspire and inspire and inspire. I wouldn’t say I’m quite patriotic about it, but I am just exploding at the ears that that kind of stuff still happens right here every single day.